Cosmopolitanism and National Identity in Singapore

Kirpal Singh, National Institute of Education, NTU, Singapore

In the years that Singapore was striving to achieve economic success, the concept of a "rugged" society was espoused by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the then Prime Minister, to extol Singaporeans to be tough and resilient, to be rugged enough to face the many challenges on the way to success. Part of the agenda of the "rugged" society concept was, I believe, the ability of Singaporeans to confront boldly influences which came from all over but which were not, perhaps, conducive to the realization of national success. Many Singaporeans of a younger generation do not today seem to know very much about this concept, foisted upon the people in the pioneering years of our Independence.

From about 1965 to about 1990, much of the literature written in English in Singapore concerned itself with issues of identity -- identity in a broad sense, with its twin dilemmas: how to achieve unity in diversity and how to become modern without shedding tradition? Poem after poem, story after story, play after play, explored the many meanings of these problems, and writers felt intensely the pressures of living in a multi-faceted environment. Hence the well-known opening lines of Lee Tzu Pheng's poem "My Country and My People"

My country and my people are neither here nor there, nor in the comfort of my preferences, if I could even choose.

She, like many of us, was troubled by the complex situation Singapore found itself in. No longer safe in the motherly arms of the British Empire and quite bereft of the stability provided by the older cultures of most immigrant Singaporeans, it was not easy to see a way through, a way ahead. We looked inside us, we looked around us, but we seldom looked beyond us. Thus our early literature may be said to be a highly "nationalistic" literature, with its major theme being finding a centre, a still point in the ever-turning world of technological, social and cultural change.

I suppose most societies will shudder at the thought of being called "insular." Small island-nations throughout history seem to have enjoyed a paradoxical existence: on the one hand, they were held to be "insular," since few visited them, and therefore a way of life was allowed to carry on without too much interference from the outside. On the other, their precariousness as small nations impelled a certain dependency on the outside world so as to ensure that they did not lag behind global movements or stagnated so totally that their very survival was at stake. How to arrive at a proper balance between what to draw in and what to keep out thus becomes a major question. It is here that we enter the vexing arena of cosmopolitanism.


Kirpal Singh. "Cosmopolitanism in Singaporean Literature in English." A Talent(ed) Digger. Ed. Hena Maes-Jelinek, Gordon Collier, Geoffrey V. Davis. 349-54.

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Last Modified: 20 March, 2002